Sweet Tradition

Words by Elaine Wu

Photos by Paulette Phlipot

Words by Elaine Wu

For those in the know, Romolo’s Cannoli in San Mateo is the go-to spot for the crispy, creamy classic. Owner Joseph (Joey) Romolo Cappello’s little shop is known for its authentic Italian treats filled with everything from the classic vanilla cream topped with pistachios, nuts or cherries to seasonal flavors like limoncello, pumpkin, hazelnut and tiramisu. But what you won’t find is any industrial-sized kitchen machinery. Joey insists on making everything by hand. “When I see a cannoli that’s been made by a machine, I instantly know,” he declares. “But when I see handmade cannolis, they look like little butterflies to me. I can tell.”

Originally started in 1968 by Romolo, his now 91-year-old Sicilian grandfather, Joey took over the business 15 years ago after what he affectionately calls a good deal of guilt-tripping from his 86-year-old grandmother, Angela. “My ‘Nonna’ is a beautiful, thoughtful woman and a good listener, but she also has a magic about her,” he claims. “She says when I was a baby, she used to rub mascarpone and rum on my gums to calm me down and then do a spell on me that would draw me back to her later in life. And it worked! I’m the only one in the family who was meant to do this.”

Growing up, Joey’s destiny wasn’t always clear to him. “I was a chemical engineer, worked in the music industry, produced concerts and festivals, and dabbled in real estate. I’ve tried it all and I have no regrets,” he declares. “When you let go and realize a choice has been made for you, you make the best of it. It’s been a real blessing.”

Romolo’s started out specializing in ice cream, but in the late 1970s and ‘80s, it became mostly a wholesale business, supplying spumoni ice cream wedges to some of the most famous Italian restaurants along Fisherman’s Wharf. In the 1990s, food trends shifted and the shop’s handmade cannoli began to take off in popularity. “Those little cannoli shells are fried, hand-filled and take a lot of time to make,” he explains. “We chocolate dip the inside of the shells so they stay crunchy twice as long as an undipped shell. And we fill them when you order them so they stay fresh.”

Everything from their cannoli cream fillings to their ice creams and cakes are made in-house from scratch. Joey insists on doing things the old-fashioned way, remaining true to his grandparents’ desire to keep their Italian heritage alive. “We haven’t changed a single thing,” Joey says proudly. “These recipes are thousands of years old. They’re so simple, but the customers who come here depend on us to make things as close to what they’ve known from their own families. It has to be as good as that, if not a little better.”

These days, large catering orders keep the business going. But Joey admits that longtime customers who stop by infrequently are his favorite people to serve. “We have corporate accounts and regulars, but the true, devoted customers see us only once or twice a year for an extremely special occasion,” he says. “Every day, there’s a customer who comes from afar who’s looking to reconnect with their past through these Italian desserts. It’s very special.”

Joey says he’s proud to continue his family’s legacy of quality and authenticity at a place that’s become a local institution. “It’s a special little seed. It’s not like a formula that anyone else can follow. It only works here, in this little spot.”

Candied Citrus

Joey uses finely ground citrus peel in the creamy filling of his cannoli. Here is his grandmother’s recipe, which can be used as a garnish or to flavor whipped cream. He works purely from memory, no measurements needed.

+ Peel off the rind, excluding the white pith, of as many lemons and/or oranges as you’d like. (The more, the better.) Cut the peels into quarter-inch slivers.
+ Put the slivered citrus peels into a cold-water bath and soak for about three hours. Drain, then repeat the process twice to remove the bitterness.
+ Place the drained peels in a large saucepan and cover with granulated sugar. Simmer on low for about an hour.
+ Remove pan from heat and let cool. Drain the peels and spread them out on a flat, dry surface, such as a rack, allowing for plenty of airflow and rotating occasionally until dry (about two days).
+ Store in a jar at room temperature. The dried candied peels can be used as a garnish or finely chopped in a food processor.